Interview with author
About Cetacean Disco
Kathleen Jamie talking about Cetacean Disco
I wrote Cetacean Disco after the events had happened. I didn't go on a whale-watching trip intending to write a piece about it. I just chanced to be there. This thing was just unfolding in front of my eyes and I thought 'oh God, this is wonderful, you know, I want to write about this'. These events happened and as they were happening I thought 'Right this is terrific. I'm going to try to keep mental notes' so I had to store it up in my head you know until I could next find a pen and a piece of paper. Occasionally I will go on specific forays and specific journeys with the intention of writing something which is always a hostage to fortune 'cos if you don't then you feel like such a chump. It's much better when they arise organically.
If I go on a trip knowing that I might write a piece about it, or if I go on a trip anyway, I don't research it before I go, not deliberately. I don't sit down there with books and maps. I go in a state of complete ignorance and sometimes people think I am just really dumb, which I probably am. But it's deliberate you know because if you're not having it mediated through somebody else, somebody else's ideas which you would be had you read all the travel books, had you looked at all the photographs before you went, you know. I go to a place and let it wash over me and therefore when you do go it shocks you and knocks you out and you have to struggle to cope and I like that feeling of finding my feet, working out very quickly what's going on, putting things in place, listening to what everybody else is saying and talking about, picking up names, picking up ideas. I find that exhilarating and struggling to get on top of it is fun and a lot of the writing comes out of this struggle to assimilate and get on top of a big new experience which you wouldn't have if you'd read it all beforehand and you went in there like a total knowledge bag, you know. I think it's a shame to do that.
Titles (laugh) absolute living nightmare. Titles for anything, anything, unless you have it, you know at some point in the writing process your title will come to you and you think 'yes that's it'. If you don't have it, God, can you find it? Hideous. In Cetacean Disco it was one of these things, a gift. One of the chaps on the boat said 'oh my God Cetacean Disco'. I thought 'thank you, there it is', you know, and that's what you pray for, gifts like that.
Kathleen Jamie talking about non-fiction
Non-fiction's a funny expression and what the Americans are pleased to call 'creative non-fiction' is an even stranger name. I don't know what to call my own work. It gets filed under non-fiction because it's not a novel and that's what I call it myself. I call it non-fiction, but it's not quite the right expression. Everything I write is highly crafted. I did a long apprenticeship as a poet and I can't not craft things. You know, it's crafted at the level of a sentence, the level of the word. I'm looking for a balance of images and I'm looking for balance of textures, so to achieve that yes, sometimes I have to shift things around in time or in place. I don't do gross inaccuracies but if it suits my purposes that somebody said a thing on Tuesday rather than Thursday, you know, I'll switch it round if it doesn't matter otherwise. There's also the crucial matter of what you leave out, in any day, in any journey you've got to .. you're leaving out 99% of what happened because it's mundane and boring and I go for what I think of as the poetics of any experience. That's my own private word for it and I don't have a good definition of it. It's to do with imagery and it's to do with, not quite symbolic meaning but I know what I'm doing when I'm doing it but I can't express it.
I prefer short pieces because I think I'm a poet at heart and that means I use fewer and fewer words and I prefer removing things to adding them, and the sheer slog of bulking something out to novel size, I just can't be bothered. It's just sheer laziness. I have tried, I thought in the early part of my career when I had absolutely no money that if only I could write a great novel I'd be set up. So you'd get to 30,000 words and then you'd think 'but I could do this in 20 lines of a poem' and that was that, you know, end of a great career.
What we call non-fiction went severely out of fashion and we were all slaves to the novel for a long time. When you think of literature we think of novels and the big prizes like the Booker prize, they're for novels. And if you do get involved with writing and you do end up with an agent and a publisher they're going 'oh can you not just do a novel? ' but it seemed to me that what we call non-fiction just offered more precise and more accurate and actually more interesting ways of being in the world and it gave me a way of writing about things other than people who are desperately obsessed with their own species and fiction can pretty well only do our own species. But non-fiction gives you access to the rest of creation as well, to landscape and to the natural world and to all sorts of other stuff and if you're only slightly interested in your own species then, for me it was much fresher. I didn't have to do things I hate, like characterisation and narrative.
Kathleen Jamie talking about writing
I consider myself a writer and what I write, so far in my life I've written poetry and this non-fiction. I'd never consider myself a woman writer or a Scottish writer, or a nature writer, or whatever the hell it is this week you know because it's far too ..... I just want a wee bit more room to manoeuvre. Of course I'm a woman, of course I'm Scottish, yes I have an interest in the natural world but as soon as you start defining yourself like that the game's up. You can't then think around it, think fluidly enough to be a proper writer once you start behaving like some kind of a writer. You've got to think out of the box the whole time, or allow yourself to think out of the box.
I teach creative writing and the one thing I seem to be saying all the time forget the reader, forget the reader. A reader has no place in your study. Your relationship is between yourself and the written piece and if you're looking over your shoulder all the time thinking 'I wonder what my reader thinks of this' you're referring to somebody who probably doesn't exist and who are you to tell your readers what to think. Your real readers are smart. They don't need to be told what to think or you don't have to imagine what they are thinking. The only relationship that matters is between yourself and the piece you are writing.
In any piece of work, a poem, a non-fiction piece, God help novelists who are working with you know huge pieces of work, there's a system of a little bit of advance then complete collapse, a little bit of advance then total collapse. I believe this is called the creative process, you push it on a wee bit, you explore funny little things, you follow these various leads, and then you think you're getting somewhere. You think you know what's going on and then the whole damn thing collapses and you're left with this smoking ruin and you're thinking 'I can't do this' and then out of that smoking ruin rises some little phoenix or other you know and you think 'oh my God, yes that's what it's about' and this happens all the time. Every creative person will tell you whether they're working in film, or books, or whether they're cabinetmakers or whatever that this is part of the process. You cannot sit at your desk, write a piece and say 'right that's done' and go for your tea. It disnae work like that. You certainly never ever write because you have a message. If you have a message you could be a journalist, but you're more likely to write religious or political tracts. So writing is not about giving messages, it's not about - is it about sharing experiences? I don't even think it's that. It's about language, recreating or engaging with language, because we all live in language and language is our natural home. Other people can obviously read it, share it, go where you went, be led where you take them, but you never set out to do that. It's not a manipulative thing. When I sit down to write a piece, I never think 'I want to share this with my readers'. Writing is about the writing, the act of writing itself and you're never thinking beyond that to your readers.
I enjoy writing on every level. With poetry especially I enjoy the deep, close intimacy that you have with language and with ideas. It's very intimate, so I enjoy that one to one, I enjoy it at that level. I also enjoy bodging round the world. When I think to what my life might have been had I not been a writer, it's given me the world, it really has. Yes, I owe it a very great deal.